Chapter 12: Sin and Guilt

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 12: Sin and Guilt

We have now for two chapters been discussing the primary sources of human unhappiness, with only a brief preliminary reference to sin. Enough has been said about sin earlier in the book, particularly in chapter three, that I trust no reader will think I regard it as incidental. However, it has purposely been omitted up to this point from the discussion of the relations of prayer to peace of mind. The reasons are, first, that traditional religious thought has often assumed that sin is about all we need to be delivered from, and second, modern liberal thought whether religious or psychological has often made sin too marginal a concept. The reality, the pervasiveness, and the seriousness of sin cannot be overstated, but it needs to be stated in a context which relates it to our total psychic life.

Sin and Finiteness

Our finiteness means anything that limits us. Only God is infinite, and we being human creatures and not the Infinite Creator are limited at many points. Such limitations are interwoven inextricably with those elements of our nature which give us greatness and dignity as sons of God made in his image. Both in body and spirit, some elements emancipate while others chain us, and the same thing may serve either purpose according to its use.

Among the most clamant types of limitations are the body’s need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, and periodically rested; the hereditary equipment, mental and physical, which imposes limits on all but far more constrictive limits on some than others; the social environment, which again by no means deals equally with all men; education; the total past experience of the self with a very complex set of habits and memories; biological functions, particularly sex and parenthood; the bodily mechanism’s inevitable tendency to wear out and finally to terminate in death. Some of these limitations are far more elastic than others. Yet in every one of them there are points beyond which it is impossible to go. One can live on little food, but not on none; one can defy his environment, but never wholly escape social claims; one can get more education, but can never know everything; one can live to a ripe old age, but eventually the grim reaper comes his way.

What is the relation of sin to this inevitable fact of limitation?

First, sin exists only where there is enough freedom that it is possible to be or to act otherwise. We have a great deal of freedom in spite of these limitations, and it is in such areas of freedom that our moral responsibility lies.

Second, much of the inertia of the world, which must be sinful in the sight of God, comes from accepting our limitations too soon. To know that there is desperate hunger in Europe and Asia and do nothing about it is sinful callousness. To choose the pleasures of the moment and turn one’s back on opportunities for education and personal growth is sinful self-limitation. To find alibis in one’s heredity, or early training, or family situation, or occupation for refusing to do what one knows he ought to do and could do is sin.

But in the third place, a vast amount of sin like a great deal of our unhappiness comes from refusal to accept our real limitations. It is when a person wants his own way, defying God and man in his effort to get it, that moral standards crash. Selfishness and self-righteousness are the dominant mood of the person who wants to "run his own show" without restraint. There is not a person living who is not, in some aspect of his life, self-willed and eager to have his own way. Multiply this many millionfold, and what results is a society in which there is not only continual clash between human wills but a continual state of rebellion against God. This means, to put it briefly, that all men are sinners.

The relation of this state of affairs to the disturbances earlier surveyed must now be looked at. Is it a sin to be frustrated, or afraid, or lonely, or sad? If one says no, then what of the self-pity, anger, envy, worry, inaction which so often accompany these states? And will a religious experience of salvation from sin take care of these troubles too? There are fuzzy lines here that are seldom clearly drawn. It may be that they cannot be thus drawn in actuality but they ought to be in understanding.

All of the experiences above noted are results of our finiteness. And to the degree that we actually cannot avoid them it is no sin to have them. Death, for example, inevitably creates loneliness and grief in a loving survivor, and there is no sin in feeling this way. But often after the death of a child from causes which could not be foreseen or prevented a mother is tormented with guilt because she thinks she was in some way responsible. Such self-torture is wrongly based. It is literally true that a person is not to blame for what he does not know -- if he could not have known it. What we fail to do if we could not do it, or do with evil consequences if we could not foresee or avoid them, may be tragic loss but it is not sin. Recognition of this fact is essential both for tolerance in judging others and such clearness as we can have in judging ourselves.

But there were some big "ifs" a moment back. If we could not know, or do, or avoid! In a vast range of things, we can and don’t want to. It is our self-centeredness, our self-will, our desire to have our own way, that perverts our limitations into sin. In great areas of human action man’s refusal to accept his finiteness makes him proud, self-righteous, and in rebellion against God; man’s selfishness makes him refuse to use his freedom with love toward his fellow men.

Guilt and Feeling Guilty

Sin is offense against God, whether by a spirit of self-willed rebellion or by failure to love our fellow men as God requires. Guilt is the state of being a sinner. To be guilty is to be blameworthy through a misuse of our God-given freedom. All men are sinners; therefore, all men are guilty. But this is not to say that all are equally guilty. It is to divorce religion from morality to deny that there are degrees of guilt. Not conformity to socially accepted standards, but the degree of evilness of motive which only God can fully judge, determines the measure of our guilt. Since most of us tend to judge ourselves less guilty than we are, it is generally a safe principle to be severe toward ourselves and lenient toward others in making such judgments as we must. "Judge not that ye be not judged" is a wise precept that never loses its relevance.

Guilty we are, and still will be even in our best moments. But to feel guilty is something else. To feel guilty is to have an uncomfortable feeling of self-condemnation. It can range from vague unrest over something one has done to the most acute forms of self-excoriation. An abnormal sense of guilt over trifles is not only a sign of extreme nervousness, but can have very devastating effects on one’s whole mental outlook. To have too little sense of guilt, as some offenders do who commit murder in cold blood with no apparent signs of remorse, is equally a sign of some derangement. Most of us avoid these extremes. But this is not to say we all feel guilty to just the right degree.

The disparity between our real guilt and our guilty feelings is one of the most serious problems of the moral life. Though it is an innate human characteristic to have a conscience, what the conscience gets troubled about is largely a matter of training and experience. Walter G. Everett in his Moral Values has pointed out that by surrounding the process with inhibitions, dark hints, and scoldings it would be quite possible to teach a child that it is wrong to eat cherries. On the other hand, many adult Christians not only tolerate but participate with no sense of guilt in practices of race discrimination which, if Jesus was right, must surely be wrong.

The relevance of prayer to this problem is twofold. In the first place, no amount of prayer will take the place of right discernment of good and evil through standards set by the outlook of Jesus, of right calculation of the probable consequences of our acts, of right knowledge and judgment of the total situation in which our lives are set. To suppose that prayer will take the place of earnest thought on the moral life has led to much acceptance of the status quo and hallowing of our own self-centered impulses. It is this which makes religion an opiate in a situation which cries out desperately for social reform.

But in the second place, there is no goodness which does not require prayer for its undergirding. We have dealt mainly in the chapters immediately preceding with the forces in life which make not only happiness but goodness difficult. It is equally needful to remember that prayer is in order when joy floods the soul and duty is delight. Though the Christian life is never easy it ought to be normal to exclaim,

I delight to do thy will, Only God;

Yea, thy law is within my heart.

To do this with even a minimum of self-deception -- for perhaps no one can say it with full integrity -- requires perspective and vision which come only from God.

Goodness of a high order and genuine saintliness are visible in others, even though it is dangerous and evil to claim them for oneself. When one looks for the secret of such goodness in others or in gratitude thanks God for such a measure of victory as has come to his own life, the explanation lies in humility, loving outreach, a sense of divine forgiveness, and power that comes from dwelling in "the secret place of the Most High."

Forgiveness, Human and Divine

However imperfect our effort to do the will of God, the only genuinely effective release we have from sin and the burden of guilt is in divine forgiveness and a new start. This is not to say that nothing else matters. It is important as far as possible to remove temptation by changes in the situation that surrounds us, to develop strength of will and clearness of moral judgment through any help other people can give us, to utilize whatever inner resources we have for doing right. But when we have done all these things, we shall still be sinners -- either callous sinners headed for further trouble through our badness or sensitive sinners burdened with a feeling of guilt. The only way to have at the same time a sensitive conscience and inner peace is the new orientation of life that comes from the knowledge of being forgiven by God and empowered for a new beginning. All that was said in chapter three about the need of confession of sin and the prayer for cleansing is pertinent here, and need not be repeated.

There is need, however, to go further than religious discussions generally do in regard to the relations of human to divine forgiveness. It is often pointed out that we need to forgive others in order to be open to God’s forgiveness -- "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" -- while at the same time we cannot really forgive unless we know ourselves to be forgiven sinners. Both sides of this paradox are true. What looks like a logical contradiction is resolved in life, for not only the Bible but our own experience tells us that to forgive others as fully as we can is both a condition and a consequence of divine forgiveness.

It is at this point that prayer assumes great importance in relation to resentment. Not positive hate, but a dull, cold, hurt sense of injury is one of the commonest of all human emotions. It may show itself in outbursts of anger and heated words, the outward ferocity of which is soon over while the barbs remain to prick and rankle in the soul. Or, since we are disciplined by social pressures to some measure of civility, the resentment may continue for years under an outward veneer of politeness. Children easily make up and forget their grudges; adults seldom do. And the advice often given to "spit it out and get it out of your system" is not very good advice, for words of anger only drive the injury deeper. The venom of resentment poisons the soul, and not infrequently injures the body also.

Will power is not very effective in the curbing of resentment. Resentment comes from an injured ego, and often the more one asserts his ego, the more injured he feels. Feeling ashamed at being so petty does not banish the pettiness, for fresh occasions keep cropping up which fan the smoldering sparks of resentment into flame.

There is a way to get over it. This is the redirection of life which comes from a sense of being forgiven by God and empowered by him to love even one’s enemies. When the love of God takes possession of a life, good will crowds out the sense of injury. One begins praying in love for the person who has injured him. Then one day he realizes -- perhaps to his own surprise -- that he does not need to pray for his enemy any more, for the enemy has become a friend.

But what of the situation when we are on the receiving end of human forgiveness? If a person has sinned against another, he ought to make amends as far as possible, "beg pardon" in a vital and not merely a perfunctory manner, and act in the future with good will and right conduct toward the person injured. Unless one repents enough to do this, his repentance does not go deep enough to open the way for divine forgiveness. If this is done and the other person grants the forgiveness that is asked, the rift is healed.

But what if the other person does not? He may keep on holding a grudge, be suspicious of overtures of friendliness, and refuse to forgive. It is poignant evidence of our finiteness that it is one of the hardest things in the world to feel at peace in one’s soul if another person, particularly one whose esteem means something to us, withholds forgiveness. To talk about being forgiven by God may sound very unrealistic under such circumstances.

Yet it is possible even without receiving human forgiveness to have inner peace. Only two things will make it possible. One is vital prayer through which the perspective shifts until the soul has its major orientation, not in human opinion, but in God. The other is to have enough love, born of Christian self-giving, to keep on loving in spite of rebuffs because the other person’s welfare is more important than our own thwarted ego.

From whichever end the problem of human forgiveness impinges on us -- and more often than not, it comes from both ends at once -- the only effective, lasting way to bridge the rift is the love that is begotten of divine forgiveness. This means the willingness, in the spirit of the cross, to go more than half-way toward another to heal the breach because God has gone all the way with us. To do it requires something of Christ’s willingness to love without requital. Let no one suppose that it is easy. But when it happens --and it does happen -- not only our sin but our hurt is swallowed up in victory.